Civil War Washington featured at “Changing Places: The Geographic Turn in the Digital Humanities”

On March 10, 2011, the Plains Humanities Alliance held a public panel presentation entitled “Changing Places: The Geographic Turn in the Digital Humanities.” Presenters included:

  • Eric W. Sanderson, Associate Director for Landscape Ecology and Geographic Analysis in the Living Landscape Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, Founder and Director of The Mannahatta Project, and author of the book Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City.
  • Philip J. Ethington, Professor of History at the University of Southern California, Director of the Ghost Metropolis digital site, and author of the forthcoming book of the same name.
  • Myself, speaking on behalf of the Civil War Washington digital site, which is situated within the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

On this occasion, and in the august company of Eric Sanderson and Philip Ethington, I presented the following narrative remarks on the origins, mission, and current status of Civil War Washington.

The Civil War Washington digital site began about five years ago as a collaboration between Ken Price, Professor of English here at UNL and Co-Editor of the Walt Whitman Archive, and myself. Ken realized that as a Whitman scholar and a Lincoln scholar, respectively, he and I shared a mutual interest in Washington, DC, during the Civil War. Walt Whitman, of course, spent a considerable portion of the war in Washington, tending to his wounded brother and more than 100,000 other sick and wounded soldiers in the hospitals that sprang up there by the dozens. So Ken proposed a digital site highlighting the experiences and contributions of Washington, DC, as a wartime capital city.

During the Civil War, Washington was:

  • The seat of the U.S. government.
  • The headquarters of the Union military effort.
  • A strategic site one hundred miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond.
  • The country’s largest depot for the collection and distribution of soldiers and supplies.
  • The focus of the Union’s medical system for treating sick and wounded soldiers. (At the start of the war, Washington had only one hospital, which immediately burned down; it ended up with over 80, more than one-fourth of all Union military hospitals.)
  • The focus of repeated Confederate military threats. (Three major Confederate campaigns targeted Washington, and there was one literal attack on the city.)
  • A magnet for abolitionists and other reformers from across the North. (After the war began, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, and a long list of others, visited or moved to Washington.)
  • The “entering wedge” of emancipation, as both supporters and opponents of freedom sometimes called it. (Washington was originally a southern community committed to slavery but underwent a wartime transformation from slavery to freedom that preceded the similar transformation that the entire nation underwent.)

Finally, Washington was a paramount symbol of national power and national persistence in the face of profound adversity, and by the end of the war the now national principles of freedom and equality.

In fact, the city was, we believed, a microcosm of the larger national struggle over the character of American government and specifically the American principles of freedom and equality, embodied in the struggle to end slavery and extend civil rights to all. Ken and I wanted to tell the story of Washington’s endurance through the sectional conflict, the resilience of its people as they endured the challenges of civil war, its role in achieving the Union victory and exemplifying fundamental national values, and its own transformation from a southern slaveowning tradition to a more forward-looking example of freedom and equality that the nation could be proud of and the world could look up to.

We originally chose Lincoln and Whitman as our focus and called the project Lincoln and Whitman in Civil War Washington. Then, three years ago, Susan Lawrence, a historian of medicine, joined our faculty as Professor of History and Director of UNL’s Humanities in Medicine Program. We immediately recruited her as a Co-Director to contribute her expertise in the history of medicine, adding a new dimension to the project, and as we began to see even more possibilities for expanding our mission, we renamed the site simply Civil War Washington to keep the scope of the project open-ended.

The core of the site, from the beginning, was a map of the District of Columbia, because we believed that the changes that the city underwent—and undertook—would be reflected in visible geographic features, such as government buildings, fortifications, military encampments, theaters, transportation routes, hospitals, hotels, fugitive slave camps and later freedmen’s villages, as well as a host of other mappable features. Our goal is a map that changes over time as the war progressed and as the city responded to unfolding events and escalating needs. Washington had only one hospital when the war began but over one hundred sixty by the end of the war, so the map shows the appearance of new hospitals as the need arose. Up to forty thousand sick and wounded soldiers could pour into the city after a major military campaign. The federal government erected over four hundred new buildings during the course of the war and built a thirty-seven-mile-long ring of fortifications around the city, making it the most heavily fortified place on earth. As fugitive slaves arrived, the government set up camps which gradually evolved into villages—freedmen’s villages—and they pop up on the map over time.

We chose a detailed base map from 1860 and “populated it” with geographical features, each of which is a hyperlink to data fields providing additional information, which we provide as we acquire it.


Civil War Washington base map, showing locations of fortifications, hospitals, and theaters.

The map is central to the project in another way, setting geographical and temporal limits on the scope of the project. We decided to include the original one hundred square miles of the District, one third of which (southwest of the Potomac) was retroceded to Virginia in 1847.

But of course important things happened on the Virginia side of the Potomac during the war, both in Alexandria, which was the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, and at Arlington, which was Robert E. Lee’s plantation. The Union seized Arlington, turned Arlington House itself into a military headquarters, cut down eight hundred acres of trees (mostly for firewood), built two forts on the land, created Arlington National Cemetery, and established two freedmen’s villages for former slaves. This was of course Washington’s line of defense to the southwest. (Coincidentally, the Pentagon is now the most visible feature of the former Lee estate.) So we included the entire one hundred square miles and limited our scope to the war years, 1860-1865. So the result is, in effect, a geographical case study of this critical one-hundred-square-mile region over a limited period of five years.

At the outset of our project, we received generous start-up support from the University of Nebraska, including the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, Dean Joan Giesecke on behalf of University Libraries, Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Dr. Prem Paul, the Departments of History and English, and the UCARE Program, as well as external support for a project manager from the Center for Library and Information Resources. Our collaboration with the Walt Whitman Archive has been both welcome and important.

In July 2010, we received major external funding through a three-year NEH Collaborative Research Grant that has received “We the People” designation, which emphasizes the project’s mission to promote a fuller understanding of the fundamental values that underlie American history and culture. The focus of this NEH grant is race, slavery, and emancipation in Washington, DC, during the Civil War, so this dimension of the site will constitute our primary objective for at least the next three years.

During the Civil War, Washington, DC, became a crucible in which Americans struggled over and resolved many of the fundamental sectional and cultural conflicts over race, slavery, freedom, and equality. Washington had always been a southern city, but during the war, northerners poured into the capital and tried to remake it into a northern city. As a federal district, the District of Columbia fell under the direct control of Congress, allowing Congress not only to convert the city into a “citadel” for military purposes but also to launch “experiments” in freedom and equality. Radicals in Congress called the District of Columbia a laboratory for legislation—”an experimental station.” Senator Charles Sumner wanted to make it “an example for all the land.”

In April 1862, Congress abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, eight months before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared the three million slaves in the Confederacy free. During the war, Congress also created the first publicly funded schools for African Americans, granted them legal rights, outlawed segregation on the city’s streetcars, and in 1867 enfranchised African American men (three years before the 15th Amendment). These milestones are all firsts for the South and presaged the broader advances enacted during the Reconstruction Era. We are hoping to dissect this process through which Washington helped to win the war while simultaneously promoting freedom and equality as national ideals.

Our primary task this year under our NEH grant is examining the passage and implementation of the Compensated Emancipation Act of April 1862 and analyzing its impact on the city and the nation. This act emancipated 3,300 slaves who belonged to almost 1,000 slaveowners in the District of Columbia. To fund this unique compensated emancipation, Congress appropriated $900,000 or about $300 per slave. Because slaveowners were compensated for their slaves, they had to file a petition and testify before a Board of Emancipation Commissioners.

compensated emancipation petition

The first page of the petition seeking compensation for former slave Sophia Davis.

This produced a voluminous, rich, and detailed record of the character of slavery in Washington and a vivid portrait of the three thousand three hundred slaves who gained their freedom in 1862. (The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 did not compensate slaveowners, so they did not produce any comparable records of enslavement and emancipation.) Two of our student team members, research assistant Rob Voss and UCARE intern Brittany Jones, along with Rhiannon Root, a student worker in the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, are digitizing, transcribing, and marking up the nearly one thousand petitions, which are located in the National Archives but are fortunately available on six reels of microfilm.

We are also exploiting the U.S. Census to characterize the city and its inhabitants, both free and slave, in 1860 and chart changes over the decade. Washington was divided into seven wards, and we can present census data graphically by ward, when it is available. We are also extracting individual-level data about slave and free families from the census.

data screenshot

Screenshot of records in the Ward I data set, derived from the 1860 U.S. Census.

Thus far, we have a data file on the one thousand five hundred families who lived around the White House in 1860 (in the city’s First Ward).
race in ward 1

This chart illustrates the proportion of the population in Ward I identified in the 1860 Census as "white," "black," and "mixed race."

real wealth by race

This graph shows the distribution of wealth in Ward I according to race, as represented in the 1860 Census.

We are collecting the census data and linking it with information from additional documents, including city directories, in SPSS (the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences). We are not only analyzing the data but providing it to users so they can analyze it for themselves.

We have also made significant progress documenting Washington’s role in the medical dimension of the Civil War, analyzing the city’s contributions not only to tending hundreds of thousands of sick and wounded soldiers but the broader impact and legacy of evolving medical theories and practices during the war. This horrific experience in the nation’s capital held dramatic long-term implications for scientific thought, humanitarian debate, and emerging government policies toward public health in the United States. Our primary resource is the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, which the government published in seven volumes from 1870 to 1888. We have constructed a database containing information on about one thousand five hundred case studies of soldiers treated in Washington’s military hospitals that are documented in detail in the Medical and Surgical History. This information includes the origin of the soldiers’ diseases or wounds, their transportation to Washington, their diagnosis and course of treatment, their subsequent health and medical care, and their pension history, following individual patients from the battlefield through their treatment and (among those who survived) into old age and ultimately their deaths.

Washington, DC, was an extraordinary city, primarily because of its status as a national capital and federal district, its geographical location on the border between the slave South and the free North, and its significant contributions to winning the war while defending and extending the national principles of freedom and equality. During the Civil War, Washington sat on the front lines of both the military struggle to save the Union and the moral imperative to end slavery while treating the human casualties of the conflict in a heroic effort to mitigate the tragedy of the war.

~Kenneth J. Winkle

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2 Responses to Civil War Washington featured at “Changing Places: The Geographic Turn in the Digital Humanities”

  1. Dear sirs: I have a copy of a Hospital Muster Roll (Lincoln General Hospital) document listing my great grandfather (Pvt. John Brick, 1st Maine HA Regiment, Company C) a wounded patient in Pavilion 5. If there is any record of his medical record, I would like to know how I can gain access to that information. I will really appreciate any help you can give me. Thanks. My e=mail address is: Hillsboro, Oregon

    • Civil War Washington User Group says:

      Dear Mr. Brick,
      Your email address did not appear in your post, so we could not write to you directly. We greatly appreciate your interest in our project. Unfortunately, we have not encountered your relative in our research on Washington, DC during the Civil War. Our research on medical cases has focused on the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, and at this point, it does not appear that your great grandfather’s case is listed or discussed there (these volumes are not comprehensive). I’m afraid individual genealogical research is outside the scope of our project, but you might consult with a local reference librarian at a public or university library for help in tracking down additional resources. Thank you again for your interest in our project. We wish you the best of luck in finding additional information about your relative.
      Best wishes,
      The Civil War Washington Project Team

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